Game of Thrones has become the most iconic television show this decade. Its tale of power and faction-fighting in the Seven Kingdoms and beyond has soaked deep into our cultural consciousness. And it has never shied away from the most important themes. But there’s one theme – a theme that drives much of the action in this groundbreaking show – that not enough people think about. I’m talking, of course, about the perils of consuming animal products.
The Seven Kingdoms is a place where veganism isn’t recognised: human-on-animal violence is as endemic as the human-on-human violence that dominates the story. The show depicts a barbaric world where “trial by combat” is considered a form of justice; where war and murder are constant parts of life… and where meat-heavy feasts are an important part of social existence. But there’s something unmistakeable about these feasts, as depicted in the story: they are harbingers of doom.
The very first feast, in Episode One, begins with grim images of slaughtered animal carcasses being prepared for the table; the whole scene has an inescapable air of impending disaster. King Robert enjoys the feast and cavorts with a servant-girl, thoughtless of the consequences of his appetites, as his scheming wife watches him, biding her time. This feast, though it appears to be a moment of happiness, is in fact a departure point for all the pain that is to come.
Sure enough, King Robert soon gets his comeuppance. Out hunting a boar, in search of another victim for another feast, he is fatally gored (Season One, Episode Seven). “Killing things clears my head,” Robert said before the hunt, and now he pays the price for his bloodthirsty tendencies. The boar will indeed feed a feast – Robert’s funeral feast. This is the first sign that in Game of Thrones, the tables are often turned on the hunters, and they instead become victims of the hunt. It’s the price they pay for their addiction to meat.
Ramsay the Hunter
Unconvinced? Here’s a human discovering what it’s like to be hunted as prey, in a scene that’s particularly horrifying even by the standards of Game of Thrones:
And here’s the hunter in question, Ramsay – whose pleasure in the sport of hunting is depicted as his most horrible characteristic – duly having the tables turned on him as he becomes the victim of his own hunting dogs.
The other person who participates in the human-hunt – Myranda – meets a similar fate. Having spent a lifetime as the mistress of the hunting hounds – a position that let her cause untold suffering to humans and animals – she ends up as meat for them.
Before we move on from Ramsay, let’s have a look at the scene in which his gruesome maiming of a human is directly linked to his pleasure as he eats a pork sausage. Theon will never be complete again – and neither will the pig. Theon, in his tortured state, identifies with the sausage: a fellow victim of Ramsay’s appetites.
Humans are prey; humans are meat. The message is starting to come through loud and clear.
Harsh, poetic justice is meted out repeatedly, at several key moments of the plot, not just to Ramsay but to others who see animals as mere meat. In Season One, Episode Nine, Arya kills a pigeon by severing its neck, and the consequences are immediate: she gets caught up in a crowd going to see her father, Ned Stark, get his neck severed. In case any viewer thinks this is a coincidence – immediately after Ned is beheaded, we hear the sound of wingbeats: Arya looks up to see the flock of pigeons. She and the pigeons – just minutes ago her victims – are united in a sense of loss.
In Season Seven, Episode One, Arya meets some Lannister soldiers. They are friendly men, blameless except for the rabbits they are cooking. “If you’re kind to strangers, strangers will be kind to you,” says one of the soldiers. But as he says this, he gives Arya a roasted rabbit – a stranger he hasn’t shown any kindness at all.
And very quickly (Season Seven, Episode Four), the Lannister soldiers discover what it’s like to be cooked like those rabbits, when a dragon burns hundreds of them to death. Yet again, the hunters have become the hunted.
As every viewer knows, the two most notable feasts in the show descend into chaos and death. In Season Three, Episode Nine, Sandor Clegane hopes to infiltrate the Red Wedding with salted pork and pigs’ feet, knowing that they will be wanted at the feast – but he’s arrived too late. Everyone has had their fill of animal meat, and the Freys start butchering humans instead.
Just three episodes later, in Season Four, Episode Two, comes the Purple Wedding. King Joffrey, at the height of his arrogance, is eating pigeon pie when he succumbs to poison and suffers a horrible death. The pie still contains feathers of terrified live pigeons, but soon Joffrey is the terrified one as he struggles to breathe, choking to death as the poison closes up his throat.
After the Red Wedding, the punishment that befalls the Freys fits the crime. They ate meat at a feast and then butchered the Starks; now two of them are butchered and turned into meat for a feast. In Season Six, Episode Ten, Walder Frey is served a pie containing meat from his two murdered sons, and at his moment of realisation, Arya slits his throat. Humans becoming prey, humans becoming meat: the theme is inescapable.
To finish the job, Arya kills the rest of the Freys – at a feast (Season Seven, Episode One). The link between feasts and death is now too powerful to ignore. (It’s worth remembering that in the books, Book 4 is called A Feast for Crows and Book 5 Part 2 is called After the Feast.)
The Coming Reckoning
This is a world, evidently, where consumption of animal products is linked intimately to the cycle of violence that plagues the Seven Kingdoms. Yet another example is found in the scene where Olenna Tyrell proves herself to be strong-willed, independent and a powerful foe to the Lannister family (Season Three, Episode Two). This wilful tendency is self-destructive and will lead to the Tyrells being wiped out – but for now, it manifests itself in her equally wilful and self-destructive desire for cheese. And at the exact moment when (as we discover with hindsight) Olenna decides to commit treason and murder her sovereign Joffrey – thus greatly extending the cycle of violence and suffering in the capital and beyond – she receives the cheese. Her willingness to eat cheese, and her willingness to advance her own interests by killing a teenage boy, are thus intimately linked onscreen.
King Robert, Walder Frey, Joffrey, Olenna Tyrell: it is clear that humans, driven by their lust for blood, meat and cheese, have brought upon themselves their own reckoning, and they have in turn become the prey. Suddenly, the accusation that Game of Thrones uses nudity to reduce females to pieces of meat takes on a new significance: in this show, the point is that everybody is being reduced to pieces of meat. And we do not need to look very far for proof that this is a driving theme of the show. In the face of the two great supernatural forces in Game of Thrones – the White Walkers and the dragons – humans are no more than prey.
In Season Four, Episode Six, we see how the dragons are hunters, and the consequences for the goats.
Then, in the same season, in Episode Ten, we see something that mirrors the earlier scene in many ways – except instead of the goat skeleton, we see the charred skeleton of a three-year-old girl. The girl parallels the goats: like them, she is prey for the dragons. We are never again able to forget that the dragons see us all as prey.
Daenerys claims to be bringing peace, but how can she do so when, wherever she goes, her arrival means war? She claims to be breaking the cycle of violence, but how can she do so when her emblem is a carnivorous beast that perpetuates the cycle of meat-eating? These are some of the questions that the show asks us.
The Predators Become the Prey
Of course, the most pressing questions of Game of Thrones have been with us since the opening scene. In a world where the dead don’t stay dead, how can the humans ignore the consequences of death – whether human or animal? What will happen when the undead reduce the humans to prey? (This issue was recently centre-stage in the dramatic scene when a reanimated bear does just that.) And can the humans change their habits in time to avoid the environmental catastrophe now looming over them in the shape of the allegorical White Walkers?
One thing is for certain: now that the two forces that reduce the humans to prey – the dragons and the undead – are united in the form of the resurrected dragon, the tables really have turned on the inhabitants of Westeros like never before. The cycle of violence and meat-eating in the Seven Kingdoms has created its own nemesis: as we have seen, the destruction and consumption of animals has led to destruction and consumption of men, and the dragon-wight is the ultimate result. The hunters really are the hunted now – and perhaps it’s going to take a major lifestyle change for the Westerosi to fix their diets and purge the existential threat from beyond the Wall.